DIR LOWER: The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of former Prime Minister Imran Khan has said it is facing a crackdown in its stronghold province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa ahead of general elections scheduled in February, with police confirming clashes at a recent political convention and the subsequent arrests of dozens of PTI supporters.
The party says the crackdown in the northwestern province is part of a wider clampdown that began after May 9, when Khan supporters took to the streets in nationwide protests, ransacking military installations and government and private properties following the ex-PM’s brief arrest by an anti-corruption agency. Pakistan’s army and the then government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif responded fiercely, accusing Khan’s supporters of terrorism and vowing to punish the alleged perpetrators, including through trials in army courts.
Thousands of PTI supporters, including top party leaders, were subsequently arrested and many remain in jail. A legion of senior PTI leaders also abruptly announced they were quitting the party or leaving politics, which they were widely believed to have done under pressure from the military establishment, which denies interfering in politics.
Khan himself has been embroiled in a tangle of political and legal battles since he was ousted as prime minister in April last year in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence. He has not been seen in public since he was jailed for three years in August for not declaring assets earned from the sale of state gifts during his tenure in office from 2018 to 2022.
Khan says the cases are politically motivated and part of a larger plan to keep him and the PTI out of elections. As things stands, Khan, as a convict, is barred from contesting any elections under Pakistani law.
But the PTI, like other political parties, has started election activities though it alleges it is being kept from holding corner meetings and political conventions, especially in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where the party ruled from 2013-23.
On November 25, a clash was reported between police and PTI supporters on their way to attend a workers convention in Wari, a union council in Upper Dir.
“PTI supporters were adamant to attend the workers convention and the police were not allowing them, which resulted in the clash,” General Secretary of the PTI in Upper Dir, Imran Saeed, told Arab News, adding that policemen were stationed at checkpoints across Dir Upper and Dir Lower to stop people from reaching the venue of the convention in the village of a former member of the national assembly, Sahibzada Sibghat Ullah.
Saeed said two PTI members were injured in the clash and dozens were arrested by the police.
Waqar Ahmed Khan, the district police office in Dir Upper, confirmed the arrests and clashes and said a police case had been filed against 188 people for violating a ban on public gatherings imposed this month under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure CrPC, which empowers district administrations to issue orders in the public interest that may place a ban on an activity for a specific period of time. Such a ban is enforced by the police who register cases under section 188 of the Pakistan Penal Code for violations of the ban.
The district police officer said 74 people had been arrested and nine police reports filed, while three civilians and three policemen were injured in the clashes. Among those charged in the police reports are former MPA Fazal Hakeem from Swat, former MPA Liaqat Ali Khan from Dir Lower, former MNA Gul Zafar Khan from Bajaur, Khan’s lawyer Muhammad Afzal Marwat and former MNA Junaid Akbar from Malakand.
In Swat, another district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, police said 36 people had been arrested and cases had been filed against more than 2,400 people for violating Section 144 on Nov. 26.
“NOT A GOOD THING FOR DEMOCRACY“
While the PTI says its political activities are being disrupted and its supporters intimidated through arrests, other political parties have been campaigning freely in the province.
The Pakistan Peoples Party held a workers’ convention and the party’s chairman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, addressed a large public gathering in Dir Upper on Nov. 21. The Pakistan Tehreek Insaf Parliamentarian party organized a rally in Lower Dir on Nov. 24 while the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-F held a rally in Peshawar, the provincial capital, on Nov. 17.
Irfan Saleem, the Deputy Secretary of Information PTI-KP, said it was “unfair” that his party’s political activities were being blocked under the “pretext” of Section 144 while other political parties were free to carry on with their campaigns.
“Leaders and workers from the PTI were arrested in Dir Upper, Lower Dir and in Swat on the pretext of violating Section 144,” he told Arab News. “We want free and fair elections and that the voice of the public is heard.”
“We will use the rights given to us by the constitution and we will conduct peaceful rallies,” he added.
Feroz Jamal Kakakhel, the caretaker Information Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, denied that the PTI was being blocked from campaigning, saying Section 144 had been imposed in view of rising militant attacks in the province in recent months.
“There is no ban on any political party to hold political rallies,” he said. “There is a law-and-order situation in the province and the district administration has imposed section 144 in the larger public interest.”
But independent political analysts warned about the legitimacy of an election in which the PTI was not allowed a “level playing field” and fair competition.
“To stop only one political party from conducting political rallies is not a good thing for democracy,” analyst and journalist Tariq Waheen said, “and will have bad consequences for the upcoming polls.”